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The Vikings do ignore the O-line, just not how they used to

Counter-point time!

Note: This article is a counter-point to an amazing piece by our senior writer and Vikings Insider, Dustin Baker. This originally appeared on our sister-site, as well. 

Click here to read that:

The Vikings Don’t “Ignore” the Offensive Line – Vikings Territory

If there’s one single issue that I’ve talked about more than any other since launching back in 2015 it’s … Well, to be fair it’s me but AFTER that it’s the offensive line of the Minnesota Vikings. It’s reached a point where I’ve worked with former and current NFL offensive linemen and coaches to get to the bottom of why this line has regressed each season.

Many Vikings fans felt some semblance of optimism in 2020 as then rookie Ezra Cleveland replaced unmitigated disaster Dru Samia at the right guard spot. Sure, many felt that Cleveland was the left tackle of the future and thus scratched their heads as to why the Vikings were yet again moving a promising player to a position they’d never played before (and on the side they weren’t used to), but he felt like an improvement on the right that lead some to proclaim that the right side of the line was finally settled.

Between stud right tackle Brian O’Neill, Cleveland and even a resurgent campaign by veteran left tackle Riley Reiff, there was some feeling that the Vikings may finally be on the right track in regards to the most important position group in the game (outside of the quarterback, of course).

That optimism was misguided, though, as the Vikings ended the season as the 29th-ranked line against the pass rush according to Pro Football Focus. That fact was noted by Baker earlier this off-season:

PFF Drops Offensive Line Bombshell about Vikings

In reference to this Tweet from @PFF_Vikings:

That fact is astounding considering how atrocious the line was in 2018 and 2019. 2018 saw some of the worst line play in LEAGUE history.

This 2018 article from ESPN explains:

“According to Pro Football Focus, Minnesota’s offensive line has surrendered 81 pressures through four games, including back-to-back weeks with a league-high 29 pressures allowed. Left guard Tom Compton allowed seven pressures to Donald alone, including two sacks, while every starter gave up at least four total pressures.

It’s early, but those figures are on pace to eclipse the number of pressures given up each season by the average NFL offensive line (160-plus) by 70 or more.”

2019 wasn’t much better as there was a large stretch of games in which Kirk Cousins literally had to roll-out or run a bootleg to move the chains through the air. Despite that, Cousins had a great year and the Vikings even won a playoff game. However, the line was so outclassed against the San Francisco 49ers that the Vikings stood no chance and defensive coordinator George Edwards was fired/fell on the sword for head coach Mike Zimmer.

That lead many to believe that Zimmer, who was going into his final contracted year, would need to massively improve his team in 2020 if he wanted an extension. You can either include or separate general manager Rick Spielman from that narrative, as well.

Then the 2020 Draft happened.

In that draft the Vikings had the most picks of any team in modern league history with 15. That draft was an opportunity for Zimmer and Spielman (Zimman? Spielmer?) to show that they’d learned from the mistakes of the last squandered window of opportunity and to earn that/those extension(s).

Spielmer instead quintupled-down on their philosophy of team building by selected FIVE defensive backs and only selecting an offensive guard with the FIFTEENTH pick, which happened to be the pick before the last pick. Mr. Irrelevant meet Mr. Are You Kidding me?

That’s where Baker’s point emerges. The Vikings did use a second rounder on Ezra Cleveland, who many compared to Brian O’Neill in terms of their physical attributes. Cleveland played left tackle in college, and hadn’t player guard before, so of course the Vikings decided to plug him in at right guard.

Baker is right, the Vikings have spent more high draft picks these last few seasons on offensive linemen. That was after mostly ignoring the line from 2013-2016, where they didn’t use a first, second, or third on a lineman.

Call it the Matt Kalil hangover. The Vikings used their highest pick in team history on Kalil, who had a great rookie season but turned into a bust after losing weight (from an illness that turned into a lifestyle choice) and thus his ability to anchor.

Now, Baker’s point is correct. The Vikings have drafted player’s like center Pat Elflein (third rounder in 2017), right guard Brian O’Neill (second rounder in 2018), center Garrett Bradbury (first rounder in 2019), and Cleveland in 2020.

So, no, they haven’t ignored the line in the draft as of late. But, from what basically every former lineman or coach has told me about the tape they’ve watched on this line? They’ve ignored a crucial component in this process… Coaching.

Former NFL O-Lineman after watching the Vikings: “It’s bad. Really bad” [Exclusive]

Here are some quotes from those tape sessions (with context):

I initially hoped to learn thoughts on Bradbury as Vikings Twitter was split on whether he was a bust or just hitting speed bumps in the LONG (I think people said 4-5 years) learning curve that happens for most NFL centers:

“I have no reason to think Bradbury will necessarily be a bust but he is playing very poorly right now. Bad footwork, no anchor in pass pro, off balance constantly. The most shocking thing is the lack of awareness. Looks lost on the field a lot. When I say bad footwork too I mean it’s loose. He can move his feet but he’s taking massive steps on reach blocks and play action sets and making it so he literally can’t take a second step. Showed up over and over again against Tampa.”

Okay. So, Bradbury is struggling. That’s neither an indictment on the coaches nor a sign the line is being ignored.

Just wait:

“The reason that I asked about the OL coach is because the whole line plays like shit. They look completely unprepared to play to me. It’s bad right now dude. Really bad. I’m sure there’s plenty of talent but it’s not showing up.”

Plenty of talent, not showing up.

Next? The coup de gras…

“Anyone that blames Kirk for what is going on is out of their mind. He had an exceptional OL when they were healthy in Washington, aside from Spencer Long, and the OL there was run by a technician in Bill Callahan. When you watched the OL there things were intentional, every single guy on the Vikings OL plays with different technique. Sometimes a certain guy will do a certain thing different to suit his abilities/skill set but here it looks like the Vikings OL doesn’t even have a coach. It looks like they get handed a piece of paper and someone says, go ahead and figure it out on your own.”

When you add to that the fact that the Vikings have consistently moved players into positions they’d never played before?

I mentioned Cleveland. Matt Birk, for example, is an example of moving a rookie lineman to another position and having success in the process. I had Matt Birk and Mike Tice on my podcast and Tice described why he felt Birk would be a great center after playing tackle at Harvard.

The Vikings didn’t move Cleveland to right guard for those reasons. They did it because they are allergic to offensive line depth. Pat Elflein was released but could’ve helped at right guard. Ask TJ Clemmings about being moved around the line to avoid keeping serviceable linemen on the roster. Alex Boone was released right when it felt like the line had some promise and depth as well.

Mike Remmers signed during the same off-season as Riley Reiff. Despite the fact that the VETERAN had never played guard before, they moved him inside after Joe Berger retired. He was part of the aforementioned historically bad guard play in 2018.

Now? He’s succeeding at his natural position with the Kansas City Chiefs.

With Bradbury struggling and the Vikings having negative money to work with, we very well could see more of the same before the 2021 season. Riley Reiff may be gone, which means that the purple could move Cleveland to left tackle. That’d leave a massive hole in the middle of the line and no money to fill it.

That leaves the draft. However, with the holes currently on defense (let alone the anticipated holes from the combination of a lack of funds, players like Anthony Barr refusing to restructure or Danielle Hunter’s recent Twitter activity), does anyone expect Spielmer to focus on the interior of the line early?

Even if they do, recent history suggests they’ll either pick the wrong player or pick a player with potential and immediately force them to play a position they never have on a side of the line they never have while also returning punts and handling human resources.

So, Baker was right. The Vikings haven’t ignored the line in the draft. However, they’ve failed to develop the players they’ve drafted, moved them around to fill holes (due to a lack of depth), or cut them to avoid any semblance of that depth (and the $ that comes with it) and failed to coach up veterans who may have decent individual PFF stats (especially in the run game), but most importantly have failed to play as a unit.

But they have drafted fresh blood. Cleveland was boom or bust, Brian O’Neill improved mightily in the run game but regressed in pass protection, and Garrett Bradbury has been an unmitigated disaster. So, I will say that Baker and I differ most at the point of those three being a nucleus to build around.

That nucleus he mentions of Bradbury-Cleveland-O’Neill, to me, is really just a single proton/player that this, or any team, could build around: Brian O’Neill.

I’ll let out friend Luke Braun of Locked On Vikings and Zone Coverage explain:

In an article from the very end of December, Braun wrote of Cleveland’s play at guard (while arguing the Vikings needed to move him back to tackle):

“Ezra Cleveland was a left tackle throughout college, so his move to right guard took some time. The Vikings didn’t even decide to play him there until injuries to Pat Elflein and Dru Samia necessitated it. Even then, his debut was catastrophic, allowing five pressures, four of which found contact with Kirk Cousins. He has been up-and-down as a pass blocker from the right guard position, with more downs than ups. PFF has only given Cleveland two positively graded pass blocking games, two average, and four negatively graded games. He has graded below 40 in pass blocking three times in the eight games he has played.”

I’d highly suggest reading Braun’s piece (or our senior Vikings insider Nick Olson’s piece about Cleveland that Braun defers to).

To sum things up, the Vikings have drafted more linemen. Outside of that, though, they’ve not only ignored facets of everything outside of drafting players (coaching, maximizing their potential by not shuffling them around, adding or keeping depth, etc) but they’ve somehow ended up worse off than they were before they drafted Bradbury, O’Neill, and Cleveland.

That is what is most important and that’s what we should focus on.

Joe Johnson

Joe Johnson started back in 2015 & in 2019, and purchased before the 2017-18 season , used to write for and is the host of the ’Morning Joes’ & ‘About the Labor’ Podcasts, as well. Follow on Twitter: @vtPTSD

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3 months ago

Joe, did you agree with the Elflien pick at the time? Did you agree with the Bradbury pick at the time? The same question goes with the Cleveland pick. If I were to guess the only pick that was thought to be suspect might have been the Oneil pick, who has pleasantly outplayed his draft position. The draft is a crap shoot at best, many of us as fans were pleased with the picks when they were made, they have just not panned out. I do agree some of that is due to coaching and and even bigger share is due to the zone run concept that somehow limits the Vikings brass from drafting less athletic but more powerful offensive guards. At some point I would think they would start to value a guard who is big and powerful enough to not be shoved into Cousins lap on every passing down. Especially since Cook can make people miss in a phone booth and should be able to create at the 2nd level on his own.

Duane McGraw
Duane McGraw
Reply to  MOREY MONK
2 months ago

I feel inclined to respond. The issue was not the Elflein draft pick at the time. It was the issue of keeping him around with no competition for his starting gig for 4 years at THREE different positions no less. I mean, last offseason he approached Spielman to request a move to RG since he knew he sucked at LG and C. They happily obliged and promptly drafted or signed no competition for him unless you belive their beloved Aviante Collins was really a serious contender to start. Same is true for Dozier. They left literally one of the worse rated guards on at starter all year long because of front office ineptitude

Igotta life
Igotta life
3 months ago

So Dalvin Cook is literally Jesus Christ and can walk on the water of our drowning offensive line and still end up with the 2nd most rushing yards. Its funny how every “die hard” fan is an expert but can never even seem to finish third in their fantasy football league. Sorry you weren’t talented enough to make it to the NFL and you spend 17-20 Sundays a year sitting on your couch drinking Bud Light and burping and farming for 3 hours. We care about your opinion about as much as we care about your own failure of a life where you have to criticize others to make your own worthless existence feel meaningful. But hey, if it makes you feel better.

3 months ago

You articulated my thoughts – I’ve often wondered about the O Line coaching.

3 months ago

“The Vikings didn’t move Cleveland to right guard for those reasons. They did it because they are allergic to offensive line depth. Pat Elflein was released but could’ve helped at right guard. Ask TJ Clemmings about being moved around the line to avoid keeping serviceable linemen on the roster. Alex Boone was released right when it felt like the line had some promise and depth as well.”

They moved Cleveland to GUARD in training camp because they had been talking about his ability to play guard almost literally from the moment they drafted him. They moved him to RG because Elflein was hurt and Samia, the RG2, was a bust of epic proportion. We’ve actually had pretty decent veteran depth across the line the last few years, Hill at OT 2016-20, Jones at C/G 2018-20 and Dozier at G/T in 2019. If they had kept Dozier on the bench, as they should have, a 2020 bench of Hill, Dozier, Jones, Samia and Udoh would have been very solid indeed compared to most of the league.

Pat Elflein shouldn’t have been released, but was probably cut at his own request so he could go someplace else and get some 2020 film in the can in preparation for free agency.

Boone was released because instead of being a locker room leader, he had become a locker room distraction. And not a cheap one, at that, as he had the fourth highest cap hit among the league’s left guards in 2016. And the 2017 OL only had promise because we had signed Reiff and Remmers and drafted Elflein, and Rashod Hill had a nice game to close out the 2016 season. Otherwise, the 2016 OL had been an epic disaster.

Are you moaning about Clemmings because we didn’t re-sign 2014 back-ups Vlad Ducasse and J’Marcus Webb for the 2015 season? I will admit that I wasn’t very happy with relying on mostly youngsters for our 2015 (Mike Harris, our one vet back-up, was promoted and moved after the Loadholt and Sullivan injuries) and 2016 (we should have kept John Sullivan, absolutely, but his being cut didn’t effect Clemmings, who was forced to start because first Loadholt and then Kalil, Smith and Long were all lost for the year). But by 2017, our bench had some experience (Sirles and Hill after Easton’s promotion), and we added Tom Compton and then Brett Jones in 2018, with Compton only forced to start with Easton’s injury. Spielman did totally blow the job of replacing Joe Berger in the STARTING line-up that year, that’s true, but a bench of Hill, Compton, Jones (vets all) and Isidora would have been quite alright if we had landed the guard in the 1st or 2nd round of the draft like we should have, or signed a free agent starting-level guard to replace Joe.

As for ignoring OL coaching, the only way you can say this is true is by looking at Rick Dennison’s tenure in isolation. Before that, Zimmer replaced Jeff Davidson with Tony Sparano, and then had to scramble after Sparano’s late-July 2018 death. By all means, I appreciate the work you’ve done getting criticism of Dennison on the record, if anonymously. But to imply that OL coaching has been ignored historically by Zimmer and Co. is just not true.

3 months ago

Joe, this crinkled paper background and the gray lettering of the comments makes it really hard to read them. I prefer black lettering, but simply getting rid of this background would help a lot.

Reply to  cka2nd
3 months ago

Well, that was quick! Thanks, Joe and Co. Much appreciated.

Reply to  Joe Johnson
2 months ago

Social media features for me? Child, I’ve done and said enough things in my life to get me into trouble that I stay as far away from social media as possible.

Duane McGraw
Duane McGraw
2 months ago

I look forward to the UFFda website Joe Johnson.
The OL failings can’t be glossed over. Drafting OL early the last 3 years landed us one out of 4 instead of 15 to 20 failures from the 5th to UDFA over the last 10 years.

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